This is the downside of exercising too much during COVID-19

Exercise is always among the first recommendations for anyone looking to feel better, and not just physically, but mentally as well. Feeling stressed or anxious? Hit the gym. Go for a run. Break out the yoga mat.

Exercise is supposed to help us relieve mental tension, relax, and blow off some steam. So, it’s no surprise that countless people have decided to put some extra effort into their workouts ever since the coronavirus appeared.

Surprisingly, a new study just released by Washington State University finds that ramping up one’s exercise routine may not provide stress relief after all. This is, at least when it comes to pandemic-related stress.

Researchers tracked and analyzed stress levels among pairs of twins during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (March/April), and discovered that people who increased their physical activity reported feeling more stressed than those who stuck to their usual workout regimen.

“Certainly, people who don’t exercise know that there are associations with mental health outcomes, yet the ones that increased their exercise also reported increased anxiety and stress,” says lead study author Glen Duncan, a professor in WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, in a university release. “It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on, but it could be that they are trying to use exercise as a means to counter that stress and anxiety they’re feeling because of COVID.”

In total, over 900 pairs of either same-gender fraternal or identical twins took part in this study. Twins, specifically, were chosen because their identical upbringings and similar (or identical, in the case of identical twins) genetics afforded researchers a more comprehensive understanding of the full relationship between exercise and mental health. For instance, how much of a role does one’s genetics play in all this?

Predictably, participants who reported a decrease in their exercise habits within two weeks of initial COVID-19 stay-at-home orders also ended up feeling more stressed out. This was in line with the research team’s expectations, but they were shocked to see a similar pattern among those who started working out more.

The surveys were dispersed and completed between March 26th and April 5th of this year, coinciding with the first stay-at-home orders in Washington state that were into effect in late March. Each participant was asked how different their quarantine workout regimen looked during that period in comparison to one month earlier. 

Most study subjects reported working out less (42%), while another 27% said they had started working out more. Finally, 31% indicated their exercise habits hadn’t changed at all.

Regarding the role of genetics and environment in all this, researchers noted that the relationship between lack of exercise and extra stress appears to be complicated by one’s genes/environment. Among pairs of twins in which one twin started working out less, but the other kept their usual exercise schedule, both individuals reported the same levels of stress.

“It’s not necessarily that exercise won’t help you personally manage stress,” Duncan notes. “It’s just that there is something genetically and environmentally linking the two.”

Generally speaking, women and older participants showed higher anxiety levels than other studied individuals.

As mentioned earlier, the study was conducted very early on in the pandemic. Back then, the coronavirus was still relatively new and no one knew what to expect in the coming weeks and months. Fast forward to today, and the dynamic between exercise and covid-related stress may have changed. So, researchers are planning on following up with this study’s participants at a later date.

“At least in the short term, it seems there is not a lot of impact from either decreasing or increasing physical activity in terms of handling stress and anxiety, but that might be different after two or three months under COVID restrictions,” Duncan concludes.

This year has been a rough one all around, and everyone has their way of dealing with stress and gaining some mental relief. If exercise is yours, these findings shouldn’t discourage you from breaking a sweat. At the same time, though, it’s important to keep in mind that pushing yourself to spend 3 hours in the gym each day isn’t necessarily going to lead to absolute stress relief.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.